Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lessons from High Waters in 2011 and 2012

On an unusually chilly day in April 2011, my husband and I made our pilgrimage to Hannibal, Missouri where Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, and the mighty Mississippi are the heart and soul of a small city. Clouds still gathered and leaked, so much so that the flood gates had been closed against the muddy waters rising and spreading beyond their banks. Officials aired their cost-benefit analysis in favor of letting the river flood bottomland in order to spare more densely populated places downstream.

I tried to imagine being one of those citizens who lived on family farms, far from neighbors. I wondered how he and she might save their cattle or sheep, how they might survive the crops lost and the income provided by their harvest, how much they could or would pack in the time they were given to evacuate. I summoned Atticus’ advice to Scout and walked in their shoes. The weight of their burden grew heavier with each step, and I mourned as we drove interstates well above the water.

In the gift shop at the end of a self-guided tour through Mark Twain’s childhood home, I bought an audio version of Twain’s autobiography, Volume 1, released one hundred years after his death in order to spare the rascals and rogues that Twain skewered within the pages of his memoir. I thought Twain could speak to me as we added more miles to our spring tour, and he often did.

Twain’s elegy for his brother, Henry, who died after a river boat explosion, proved so raw and poignant that we had to pause and grieve anew for a man we did not know, a man long gone except for the words recorded by his brother. Twain recalls that Henry “lingered in fearful agony seven days and a half, during which time he had full possession of his senses, only at long intervals, and then but for a few moments at a time. His brain was injured by the concussion, and from that moment his great intellect was a ruin. We were not sorry his wounds proved fatal, for if he had lived he would have been but the wreck of his former self.” Still, Twain’s dread of having to inform his mother, of having to accompany his brother’s body home for burial, of having to bear unimaginable sorrow for the rest of his days helped me in my own journey to walk in the shoes of others whose losses wrought by nature and fate are greater than any court of law would exact upon them.

Those others included the victims of a targeted Mississippi River flood. I wondered if they would find comfort in their sacrifice for the greater good and learned that they had, in fact, fought back. Landowners appealed to the courts in an effort to stay the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers’ hand in blasting levees to relieve pressure and spare downstream cities, but the courts ruled against them, altering entire ecosystems and upending the lives of countless citizens who became the sacrificial lambs upon the altars of urban centers and businesses. (To view some photos of the 2011 flood, visit =univ&sa=X&ei=bqv1UPD_C4HF2QW12oH4Bw &ved=0CD0QsAQ&biw=1376&bih=917)

Those refugees from a planned flood understood, as few of us ever will, that:

The mass and majesty of this world, all
     That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
     And could not hope for help and no help came
    (from “The Shield of Achilles” by W. H. Auden)

The 2011 flood victims fled and endured. They teach us, if we walk in their shoes, that human beings can and shall overcome. May they always, but most of us need help to do so.

We need good insurance, well-funded FEMA assistance, friends and neighbors with resources, and family to give us shelter and character. So it is for those along the east coast, victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. They can and shall overcome, especially if help arrives.

Last night, the House of Representatives passed a second bill to fund aid for the states affected by Hurricane Sandy, but 179 Republicans and one Tennessee Democrat, Jim Cooper, voted against the bill. Those voting no stand firm in their belief that the federal government should not render aid to citizens suffering or they worry about primary challengers in 2014 or they lack a sense of duty to the nation as a whole--at least, those are the reasons that have been offered by some who have explained their vote and/or by the media.

I too worry about the national debt. I too would like to see some spending restraint, but not at the expense of people who buried loved ones, who have no home to retreat into, who lost decades-old, successful businesses, and who await insurance checks that often fail to restore people to the security they once had. Let us examine our corporate entitlements instead. Let us rather reconsider our military spending for contractors (never the soldier him or herself).

Let us invest in our most important resource: human beings who have had the great good fortune to live in a nation committed to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.